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Hacking the Gender Gap Reportback

On April 21, The Hacktory facilitated a workshop called Hacking The Gender Gap at the Women in Tech Summit.  The summit itself was a blast and people seemed to get a lot out of the workshop.  I’ve attended some good sessions about gender and tech, but I find that people are so relieved to have an outlet for the flood of experiences and emotions they have, that there is rarely enough time to craft solutions. So we decided to design our workshop to make everyone heard, and we used the act of storytelling itself as a measurable outcome.

To do this, we started by asking participants to write down a positive and negative experience they’ve had in tech from any time in their lives, and post them on a physical timeline. From this visual data we could start to identify patterns. For example, we saw a lot of positive experiences in childhood and cluster of negative experiences around age 30. As one participant noted, “30 is a hell of a year.” We also saw a beautiful age range from about 5 to 52.  You can see all the responses here.

After that, we reviewed some of the published research about the gender gap and presented some creative solutions. My favorite is the story of Jessamyn Smith’s talkbackbot which she wrote to respond to a bot in her company’s IRC channel that constantly gave the irritating and sexist retort, “That’s what she said”. Her bot responds with quotes from notable women to make it clear that “that’s what she REALLY said”.  A workshop point that echoed around Twitter is one that I borrowed from my geek feminist hero, Skud:  “You can teach programming.  You can’t teach passion [or diversity].”  Several times we noted that a lot of techniques that help boost gender diversity also positively impact other kinds of diversity by simply making an environment more welcoming.

Of course the stories were really outstanding. We loved the stories of young women bonding with their dads over tech. We also noticed that a lot of negative stories focused on just one discouraging comment; those seem to have a lasting impact at any age. When asked to compare the positive stories, our group noted that many involved automating a boring task and being in a situation where the stage was set to facilitate learning and problem-solving. The common themes of the negative stories were frustration, feeling overwhelmed, and having no one to go to with questions.

The crowd at WITS was almost exclusively women, but we piloted the workshop with a mixed-gender group of friends and it worked great in both contexts.  We’re sure we could do this a hundred times and get a hundred different and satisfying outcomes, though we are curious to see what themes might surface across groups of all genders/nationalities/ages/etc.  We hope to repeat it to help people identify and be great allies.  Get in touch with us if you’re interested in having us run it for your organization!

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